Art history professors cheered the appointment of one of their own, Mary Miller, as dean of Yale College.
Amid heavy pressure to appoint a scientist, University President Richard Levin’s choice of an art historian signals, in many ways, a continued commitment to the humanities. At the same time, professors and administrators of the arts said Miller’s general academic acuity will be useful in directing Yale’s initiatives in the sciences.
“It’s a vote of confidence in one of Yale’s historical strengths,” David Joselit, chair of the History of Art department, said. “The core values at Yale have always been closely linked to humanities and to the arts.”
Miller, for her part, has said one priority of her deanship will be continuing to implement the recommendations, especially those related to arts expansion, of the 2003 Committee on Yale College Education on which she served. A major problem at Yale, she said, is the fact that demand far outstrips supply when it comes to arts classes.
“I have great interest and enthusiasm in the undergraduate arts life in Yale College,” she said.
Additional art spaces — galleries, practice rooms, performance venues — have oft been suggested for the mysterious third building planned to neighbor the two new residential colleges. Planning for that expansion of Yale College is sure to top the Dean’s agenda in the coming years.
It’s not as if the arts community was neglected before, Joselit said, but Miller will represent it in the administration in a new way.
“It’s exciting that the arts, and the visual arts in particular, will have a seat at the table in a different kind of way when big decisions are being made at the highest levels,” he said.
But the focus of Miller’s scholarship may prove less important than its eminence, said art history professor and former department chair Edward Cooke. Her appointment demonstrates Yale’s commitment to promoting accomplished academics, he said, more than it suggests a preference for any particular discipline.
Miller’s appointment does mean that the three officers who oversee tenure — the provost, the dean of the Graduate School and the dean of the College — are a psychologist, a historian and an art historian, respectively. But the absence of a scientist, with the departure of provost and chemist Andrew Hamilton, is not automatically a disadvantage, Cooke said.
“It’s important to have scholars of high standards who are curious about a wide range of things,” he said. “Each of those three have interests that stretch beyond the ability to be pigeonholed in certain areas.”
While Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art, is particularly thrilled about the new dean because of Miller’s commitment to art collections as an educational resource, she said Miller’s sense of how to enrich humanist education goes beyond her own field.
“President Levin and the whole administration, and the whole faculty, understand that Yale has to be a balanced environment in terms of intellectual activity,” Meyers said. “The arts can’t flourish without the sciences, just as the sciences couldn’t flourish without the arts.”
Miller is actually well poised to bridge the humanities and the sciences, said Timothy Dwight Master Robert Thompson, who teaches in the History of Art department. Her work in pre-Columbian art and architecture, he said, is respected by archaeologists and anthropologists.
“Mary is not only an art historian non-pareil but also a social scientist whose rigor and superbly calibrated arguments have the praise and admiration of some of the most hard-nosed archaeologists of the day,” he told the News in an e-mail. “She can speak, in other words, science as well as humanism.”
Joselit said science will remain a high priority, and scientists can still be excited about the West Campus complex and the appointment of Vice President Michael Donoghue to oversee it. But for Joselit and his colleagues in the History of Art department, Dean Miller is a cause for excitement of their own.
—Paul Needham contributed reporting.